One Friday evening a few weeks ago at the Gare St. Jean, I witnessed the largest exhibition of North Face puffer jackets, Samsonite travel bags and Bose Headphones in the Western Hemisphere. All attached, fastened or connected in some way to the pack of tired looking students hurrying down to the station to catch their trains home.
It’s my opinion that French railways are kept afloat by the country’s students. Criss-crossing its lignes à grande vitesse twice weekly to get their washing done and emaciated corpses fattened up on duck stew from the family pot.
It’s hard enough getting a cheap seat on the TGV on a Friday as it is. If you’re starting out from a university town such as Bordeaux (70,000 students), it’s practically impossible.
You may as well cycle. Set off early at 6am. In Paris by 8pm. Why not? It’s only 350 miles. They used to do it in the old days. Although, you’d probably need more than a strong cup of coffee, as French cyclist Jacques Anquetil alluded to in a debate on doping on French television in the sixties.
‘…only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride Bordeaux–Paris on just water…’
(The Bordeaux-Paris race at the time being one of cycling’s most prestigious one day events.)
This strange weekly student exodus was the same in Granada when I lived there in 2001. I shared a flat with two student brothers, who on Friday evenings would pack up their little red suitcases and head back into the darkest depths of Andalucia (their parents were olive farmers) until Monday morning. When they would reappear in the flat at nine o’clock sharp looking well-fed and clean-cut.
It was great for me though, as I had the flat to myself all weekend, plus I never ran out of olive oil. Yet I always wondered, why bother?
Wasn’t it just an enormous fag? To peel their dirty clothes off the floor, pack their bags, fight their way to the station, sit on a stinking train for hours. Wouldn’t it just be easier to stay put? Partytime, chez nous?
I rarely went home at university. Here though, as in Spain, it’s completely normal. Expected even. And reflects the importance of the family in French life. Which says:
‘You will not stay in your student flat drinking Jägermeister, doing eight-balls and smoking reefers all weekend.’
‘Oh OK, mum, dad. I’ll do it during the week then.’
Cue the traditional Thursday night lash-up that happens in all French university cities. It’s the same in the UK of course. I recall my Thursday nights at The Imperial in Nottingham – triple shots for a pound – with fond memories (or lack of). The difference being though that those Thursday night piss-ups in the East Midlands had the tendency to spill over to Sunday night. (Or the following Wednesday depending on who your friends were…)
Here there’s just one big student night – Thursday – and then it’s back home. Hence, the mass scrum of students I saw at Gare St. Jean a few Fridays ago.
I guess it’s nice though. To have your hangover blunted by fresh food, drinkable wine and the family dog snuggling up to you on the sofa every weekend.
Then again, a five hour journey on an overcrowded train with a head full of bourbon and the taste of too many Gauloises cigarettes at the back of your throat. I think I’d rather cycle. 350 miles. Why not? Definitely clear the head.